Namita Gupta Wiggers: The timing was right to leave the museum

As PNCA and the Museum of Contemporary Craft started a new chapter, the museum's leader took the opportunity to leave

Namita Gupta Wiggers brought Ai Weiwei's "Dropping the Urn" to Portland in 2010.

Namita Gupta Wiggers brought Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping the Urn” to Portland in 2010.

Late last week Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Craft announced that MoCC executive director and chief curator Namita Gupta Wiggers was leaving both posts. The timing seemed odd. Since she was hired in 2004, Wiggers had helped the museum successfully reinvent itself, move from its antiquated Southwest Corbett Ave. home to new quarters in the Pearl District, survive a near-death experience that led to its absorption into PNCA, and then helped it evolve into a partner with the college.

Wasn’t the good part about to begin? The part where Wiggers’s eye for opportunities and wide connections could generate even more and even better exhibitions at the museum? Especially since PNCA was on the verge of moving out of its Goodman Building home and into a gleaming renovation in the 511 Broadway building, just down the North Park Blocks from the museum? So what was the deal?

“My leaving is my own timing,” Wiggers said yesterday. “This is a good moment to shift my focus.”  And what makes it a good moment is that the trajectories of the museum, PNCA and Wiggers’ own career make this a good window for an exit. If she wanted to do some different things after 10 years and create the least disruption at the museum and PNCA, this is the time, and Wiggers took advantage of it. Which isn’t so odd at all.

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Namita Wiggers

Namita Wiggers

The history of the Museum of Contemporary Craft is out there to be written by an enterprising art historian with an interest in both local arts institutions and the national and international history of craft arts. It starts in 1937 with the founding of the Oregon Ceramic Studio, which the next year opened its doors on Southwest Corbett in a building designed by Ellis Fuller Lawrence, the first dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts. It became a regional center for craft arts, especially ceramics, and when craft lurched toward art after World War II, Contemporary Crafts, as it was known, tracked, encouraged and exhibited the most interesting craft artists.

By the time Wiggers was hired, Contemporary Crafts had reached a transition point and decided to find a new home in the Pearl, where more people could see its exhibitions. Wiggers said that during her first year on the job in the Southwest Corbett building, only 12,000 visitors came for the shows and craft shop. Led by executive director David Cohen and Wiggers, Contemporary Crafts decided to make the jump. Although I’ve heard some argue that the organization lost something essential in the move, the museum now attracts 40,000 to 60,000 visitors a year, Wiggers said, and it has participated in the growth of the city’s arts scene in a more central way than it did before the move.

Part of the visitor increase came from a better-traveled location, but Wiggers’ shows were popular, too. She brought the first West Coast exhibition of work by Chinese dissident art Ai Weiwei (Dropping the Urn, 2010), for example, and the attention paid to the region’s craft “elders” was long overdue—David Shaner, Ken Shores and Betty Feves, for example. Both thematic and single artist-driven, the exhibitions also looked great in the new space, though as Wiggers observed, a little more space for them wouldn’t have hurt. The exhibitions did more than drive attendance, though. They also helped the museum double its collection during Wiggers decade there, including major new pieces that the Corbett Avenue space could not have accommodated.

The 2007 move was costly, though. And by 2008, the museum very nearly closed. Tom Manley, the president of PNCA, saw the advantages of a merger with his college, and led a process that culminated in their integration in 2009 with Manley as the CEO of the museum. Wiggers continued as chief curator and then in 2012 added the executive director position to her portfolio. The museum’s finances stabilized in the process, and the college’s curatorial studies students had a place to experience the museum exhibition process first hand, among other advantages for the college.

This short history conceals how tumultuous a process this all was (that’s where the historian comes in) and how much anxiety it created, but Wiggers managed to develop and execute a curatorial vision for the museum and, having been a jewelry artist herself, worked to make the museum’s shop into an excellent moving exhibition of contemporary and historical craft art.

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The atrium of the planned 511 Broadway renovation for PNCA/Courtesy of Allied Works

The atrium of the planned 511 Broadway renovation for PNCA/Courtesy of Allied Works

Since the absorption of the museum, PNCA has evolved itself, as Manley sought to situate it closer to the action of the city’s creative economy and arts scene. The immediate change on the horizon: a relocation of the main building to the 511 Broadway building. The old post office and federal building was acquired by PNCA in 2008 through the federal government’s public benefit conveyance for educational purposes program. Then vigorous fundraising and a $20.3 million loan package from the Portland Development Commission made the idea of a facility large enough for all of PNCA’s programs possible. The stunning design for the renovation by Brad Cloepfil’s Allied Works didn’t hurt, either.

PNCA sold the Goodman Building, its primary location, last fall for $11.75 million, and the net equity from the sale will go into the renovation of 511 Broadway, now the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design, after a lead gift of $5 million from the Schnitzer CARE foundation. (PNCA bought the building in 2008 for $10.5 million.)  Brian Libby’s account of the next chapter in the Goodman Building’s history—demolition to make way for condos and ground-floor retail, unsurprisingly—is informative.

Last fall, PNCA opened its dormitory for freshmen, ArtHouse, developed by the Powell family and Project ^, on the North Blocks, too.

The upshot is that by February 2015, PNCA will be fully operational with all of its primary buildings—dorm, museum, college—grouped within a few blocks of each other on the North Park Blocks. And that will start a new chapter in the lives of both museum and college.

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So, if Wiggers  wanted to leave, this moment is a good one. And she did: She has a couple of book proposals circulating, she said, and a couple of independent curatorial projects  she’s working on. She will continue to develop the Creative Craft Forum, which she started in 2008 with Elisabeth Agro as “a platform for dialogue, discussion, and debate” about craft issues. And she may continue to work at the museum and college in other capacities.

In the meantime a PNCA-museum task force will determine how she will be replaced in the context of increased integration of the two organizations. Can PNCA faculty take on some curatorial functions, for example? What’s the role of the museum director if most of the administrative functions are run by the college? Wiggers said to expect some answers in May as her tenure at the museum draws to a close.

The construction vans have been parked outside the 511 Building for a while now, but the first sign that things are changing should come soon, too. A power wash of the outside of the building, which might be described as “begrimed,”  is also slated for May. That will announce that everyone involved has entered a brave new world, once and for all.

NOTES

I have written about the merger between the museum and PNCA several times over the years, mostly when it was happening and I was writing for The Oregonian. I won’t list them all, but here’s a sampling.

Read more by Barry Johnson.

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